The Heart of Leadership
Becoming a Leader People Want to Follow
By Mark Miller
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2013 Mark Miller
All rights reserved.
Leaders Are Different
"Leaders are different," Samantha said.
"That's it?" Blake said in a tone that revealed his concern.
"Yes, Blake. Your performance has been outstanding; you're a great individual contributor, but I couldn't get enough support for you to become the team leader."
"That doesn't make sense to me," said Blake, in disbelief. "Outstanding performance—no promotion."
"That's right. We do value results around here—but there's something missing." Samantha stopped.
Blake leaned across the table, waiting on her next words, but she said nothing.
He finally broke the silence, "What's missing?" He wanted to know—he needed to know.
"It's really hard for me to put it into words," she said hesitantly. "That's why I said leaders are different."
"Can you tell me how leaders are different?" Blake asked.
"I'm not sure how to describe it, but I know it when I see it." Samantha sounded uncertain.
"Samantha, are you trying to tell me that I'll never get a promotion?" Blake wasn't sure he even wanted the answer to that question.
"No, Blake, I'm not. However, there is a lot more to leadership than great individual work ... you're just not acting like a leader," she said, in a genuine attempt to help.
"How do I act like a leader?" Blake's frustration was starting to show.
"Leaders are different."
"Yes, I got that." Blake was hanging on Samantha's every word. He waited, but Samantha didn't seem to have anything else to say. Blake decided one final question was in order: "Do you have any advice for me?"
"You need to figure this out for yourself. You know a lot of leaders; why don't you talk to some of them and see if they can help?"
Samantha wasn't totally satisfied with her response, but she hoped Blake would take her counsel. He did seem to have a lot of potential.
* * *
As Blake drove home, he replayed the previous five years at Dynastar in his head. He felt as if he'd gotten off to a fast start, maybe the fastest start in history. He had practically saved the company in his first year—single-handedly. But since then, he had moved three times within the company and been passed over twice for leadership positions. He was only 28 years old, but he felt much older. He was tired. He was stuck. And now he had to tell Megan.
As he pulled in the driveway, he thought, I wish we didn't have such a big house payment, then this promotion and the raise wouldn't seem so important. He also hoped that Megan was in a good mood. Maybe she had gotten a nap today.
As he entered the house, Clint, their nine-month old, was screaming about something. None of them had been sleeping much, and Megan didn't look like she'd had a nap.
"How are you?" Blake asked, mustering as much of a smile as he could.
"Okay," Megan said, "I'm tired." As she spoke, she stepped into the light.
"Have you been crying?" he asked.
"The doctor called—" She stopped.
"And ...?" Blake probed.
"I'm pregnant!" Megan burst into tears.
"Great," Blake said, with little emotion.
"Great? You're never home, we don't sleep, and we can hardly pay the bills. What's great about another child?"
The part about "hardly pay the bills" hit Blake like an arrow to his heart. He decided to let it go even though it hurt him deeply.
"Listen," he said. "Another child is a wonderful gift! We'll sleep again someday. And I'll make more money—someday. And about my never being home, I'll keep working on that part, too."
He paused and then said, "I'm thankful we're having another baby. We always talked about having another one."
"We were going to do that later," she sobbed.
"It will be okay." Blake hugged Megan as tightly as he ever had.
When she stopped crying, he said, "You go lie down and take a quick nap. I'll take care of Clint and fix us something to eat. I'll call you in an hour."
"Thank you" was all that Megan could say, as she shuffled off to the bedroom. A nap was the greatest gift Blake could have given her in that moment.
An hour later, much had changed, or at least it felt like it. Clint was happy, Megan was a little more rested and relaxed, and Blake had made a wonderful dinner—well, he had cooked a frozen pizza.
When Megan came back into the kitchen, she said, "I'm sorry I was so emotional earlier. You're right, we do want another child, and there's probably never a good time." She smiled, "Plus, the stress that comes with not sleeping makes everything look more monumental than it really is."
"Here's what I know," Blake added. "It will be great! It may be bumpy, but it will be good." Megan had always loved Blake's optimism.
"How was work today?" Megan asked.
"Well ..." Blake really didn't want to go there. The timing seemed extremely bad. "It was fine," he said.
"Uh-oh," Meagan said. Blake was not a good liar. "You do still have a job, don't you?"
"Certainly. What would make you think I don't have a job?" Blake was thankful he did still have a job; perhaps that would make the next part easier.
"I do have a job. I don't have a promotion," he said in a matter-of-fact tone.
"I'm sorry, dear." Megan could feel his pain. "What'd they say?"
"I do great work ..."
"But leaders are different."
"What does that mean?" Megan asked.
"I don't really know. I've only had a couple of hours to think about it. I think they're telling me I'm not a leader."
"You've always been one before." Megan instinctively came to Blake's defense.
"Yes, I know. But Dynastar seems to have a different standard of leadership. I'm still trying to figure it out."
"What are you going to do?"
"Three things," Blake said. "Keep working hard. Keep trying to grow, and I'm going to call Debbie Brewster."
"You do all that," Megan said, "and I'll pray." She smiled; Blake didn't.
When the Student Is Ready
The next morning Clint was up early, so Blake was up early also. While he drank his coffee, he thought about how much Debbie Brewster had helped him after his dad died. He still found it amazing that his dad had mentored Debbie years earlier when she was a struggling leader and then she had then become his mentor.
He credited Debbie with helping him get his job at Dynastar by coaching him through the entire process. She had taught him so much about growing as a leader. He wasn't sure where he'd gotten off track. He was also not sure why he ever stopped meeting with her in the first place. He hoped that she could help him again.
On his way to the office, he gave her a call. Fortunately, but not surprisingly, she was eager to meet with him.
"You name the time and place," Debbie said.
"How about our old spot at the coffee shop?" Blake said.
"Tomorrow morning, early?" said Blake. He didn't think he should schedule a meeting in the evening; he knew Megan needed his help at home.
"Great. See you tomorrow morning at 7:00," Debbie said. "What's the topic?"
"I want to talk about how leaders are different."
"I'm glad you asked," Debbie said. Blake sensed she was smiling as she said it. "I'll see you there."
* * *
The morning of the meeting it felt as if the clock had turned back five years. Blake arrived ten minutes early only to find Debbie already seated at a table in the back.
"It's great to see you again!" Blake said, as Debbie stood.
"I was going to say the same thing," Debbie replied. "How are you?"
"Good. I'm married, with a child and another one on the way."
"I can't believe it's been five years. Why did we ever stop meeting?" Blake asked.
"We were both busy. And then John got sick."
"How is he?"
"He died twelve months ago."
"I'm so sorry." Blake couldn't believe he didn't even know.
"Well, that's another reason you and I lost touch. When we got his diagnosis, we decided to travel. We went around the world—it was amazing! We saw things together that made his final months extremely meaningful for both of us. We were married almost thirty years. Marrying him was the best decision I ever made."
"I'm so sorry," Blake repeated. "I'd like to have been there with you at the end."
"It's okay; we've been blessed with many friends."
"I'm glad we've reconnected. You're my only real mentor, and I've missed you."
"Thanks for that compliment, Blake. We'll work hard to stay in touch, but you know you probably need several mentors in your life. But we can talk more about that later. When you called, you said you wanted to discuss how leaders are different."
"Yes," Blake said. "I really need to know."
"What brought this up?"
Blake took the next few minutes to share his story from the previous five years. Debbie listened and took a few notes.
"So, after you served on the cross-functional team, what happened to your supervisor? I think her name was Maggie?"
"She ultimately left the business. She decided to go to work for a nonprofit organization. I wanted her job, but I didn't get it. That was the first time I was passed over for a leadership position."
"And it happened again yesterday?" Debbie was trying to get the facts straight.
"Yes, that's when Samantha told me leaders are different. I didn't know what to do with that, so I called you."
"Okay, I think I've got the context. Specifically, how can I help?"
"You tell me. I'm frustrated, confused, and stuck!" Blake said.
"Okay, first, let me tell you that you can be a leader. I've known it since you were 16 years old," Debbie said, reassuringly.
"I'm glad you think so—no one else seems to."
"Your dad thought so, too."
"I know. That's just one more reason this whole thing is so painful." Blake paused and looked at the floor. "You know, in the last conversation we ever had, he told me I could be a leader. I didn't believe him then, and I'm not too sure I believe him today."
"Listen, Blake, here's the reality of the situation. You're 28 years old. You were not passed over for Maggie's job. You weren't seasoned, proven, or, quite frankly, qualified. You weren't a viable candidate."
No one had ever been so direct on this issue before. He didn't know what to say. When he started to speak, Debbie stopped him.
"No, let me finish. However, you may have been passed over yesterday. But that's great news! It sounds like the wake-up call you needed."
"Wake-up call? What do you mean?"
"Listen, Samantha was correct—leaders are different. And I'm thankful we're having this conversation now when you're 28 rather than waiting until you are 58. If you can figure this out now, you can lead for the rest of your life. And finally, do not associate leadership with a position. You can lead, with or without, a title. If you wait until you get a title, you could wait forever."
Debbie wasn't finished, "You led early in your career at Dynastar without a position of leadership. Why did you stop?"
"I'm not sure. The truth of the matter is I didn't realize I had stopped leading. But I'm ready to get back in the game," Blake said, opening his notebook. "Where do we start?"
"Give me a napkin," Debbie said.
"Another treasure map?" Blake said, remembering the last time Debbie drew on a napkin for him.
"Nothing that elaborate," she smiled. "Did you and I ever talk about icebergs?"
"No, we talked about my getting a job; we talked about what I needed to do to grow as a leader; no ... no recollection of an iceberg. I think I would remember that," Blake grinned.
"This is something else your dad taught me. The iceberg is a perfect picture of leadership. Think back to grade school; about how much of the iceberg is above the water?"
"Ten percent?" Blake thought that was correct.
"Yes, and the balance is below the water. It's the same with leaders—10 percent above the waterline and about 90 percent below. Your dad taught me about both."
"The part above the water represents leadership skills. The part below represents leadership character," Debbie finished her sentence and her drawing simultaneously.
"So?" Blake wasn't sure how this spoke to leaders being different.
"So," Debbie continued, "skills represent things leaders do. You and I talked about skills quite a lot a few years ago."
"Yes, I remember—I've been working on that."
"Outstanding." Debbie, true to her nature, was very affirming.
She continued, "The balance of the iceberg, the part under the water, represents leadership character. Ninety percent of our success as leaders will be determined by what's below the waterline. It's our leadership character that ultimately drives what we do, and why. It is a true reflection of who we really are as human beings."
"When you say it like that, it sounds really important."
"More than you can imagine," Debbie added.
"Can you give me an example?" Blake asked.
"Sure. If you help Megan with the dishes, what does she think?"
"She thinks I'm amazing," he chuckled.
"Not so fast. If you help her because you feel obligated to help her or if you want something in return, you'll not get the credit you think you deserve. However, if you serve her because you want to serve her—no strings attached—then she'll think you're great. Same action—totally different outcome."
"Does she really know why I'm serving her?" Blake asked sheepishly.
"Absolutely," Debbie said, without flinching.
"And the difference?" Blake stopped.
"The difference is your motivation—your character—your heart. What's below the waterline colors everything we do as a leader. We cannot conceal our heart for long—if at all."
"I think I'm tracking with you. So let's go back to how this connects with the idea leaders are different," Blake said.
"What comes to mind when I say 'character'?"
"Honesty, integrity, loyalty—things like that."
"Okay, those are outstanding attributes or qualities, but they are not unique to leaders. They are not distinctives."
"What do you mean?"
"You want every person in your organization to be honest, demonstrate integrity, and be loyal."
"Sure," Blake agreed.
"But, that's not what makes leaders different. The men and women who lead, at least those who lead well, certainly have the traits you mentioned, but they also have other traits that set them apart."
"Is that what my supervisor means when she says leaders are different?"
"I can't be sure, but my guess is yes. Regardless, you need to understand this concept; it will affect your leadership for the rest of your life."
"This sounds bigger than I thought. I was just trying to get to the next level at Dynastar. I'm not sure I'm ready to talk about the rest of my life," Blake said sheepishly.
"That's exactly what we're talking about—the rest of your life as a leader." Debbie offered this with a firm yet warm stare.
"Leadership character is the primary driver of your success as a leader."
"What about skills?" Blake asked.
"They are important, but the lack of skills is not what derails most leaders—skills are too easy to learn. It is ultimately leadership character that determines our opportunity for influence and impact."
"Okay, and?" Blake said with a question in his voice.
"Let me say it again, when leaders fail to thrive, the culprit is often their leadership character, not their lack of skills."
"I think I should be offended at this point," Blake said. "You're questioning my character?"
"No, let me say it differently; stay with me," Debbie continued. "You can have impeccable character—be honest, loyal, dependable, and so on—and still not demonstrate leadership character."
"So this is not about being loyal, dependable, having integrity, and other admirable traits like that?" Blake was trying to put all of this together.
"Of course you need those traits. But they are not enough. Leadership character sits on top of the character traits you just mentioned—integrity, loyalty, and other traits like them are foundational. Leaders who don't possess these are disqualified before they start. Successful leaders demonstrate additional qualities—the traits of leadership character—in their day-to-day efforts to lead. If you don't demonstrate leadership character, your skills and your results will be discounted, if not dismissed."
"How can results be dismissed?"
"If people don't see you demonstrating leadership character, they won't see you as a leader, no matter how great your results. People will just see you as a talented individual contributor. Great to have on the team, but they won't let you call any of the plays. They won't ever let you lead."
"Okay ..." Blake paused, trying to figure out his next question. "So if I don't have leadership character, am I doomed as a leader?"
Excerpted from The Heart of Leadership by Mark Miller. Copyright © 2013 Mark Miller. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
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